DER Weekends: Bengali Harlem

Nargis Rahman shares the story of a man who hoped to learn more about his father and discovered a rich history of Bengali men who jumped ship at U.S. ports to build lives in America.

Black and white image of many men dressed in suits sitting at a dining table

The film ‘In Search of Bengali Harlem’ documents comedian Alaudin Ullah’s search for his Bengali father. 

What Ullah and co-director Vivek Bald found was a society of Bengali men who married Puerto Rican and African American women in the early 1920s and built communities from Harlem to Detroit. 

Two men sit at a desk and look at a computer
Directors of ‘In Search of Bengali Harlem,’ Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah.

“When we started looking into the actual history, it became clear that Alaudin’s father was not an isolated case, he was part of a much larger undocumented migration of working-class folks from places that became Bangladesh, Pakistan, et cetera, who were actually coming to the United States from the early 20th century, all the way to the present,” Bald says.

He says thousands of Bengali men came to the U.S. after boarding ships in Calcutta during British rule, jumping ship at ports in Detroit and Baltimore. 

Ullah says his interest in learning about his father’s past was spurred by a stint in Hollywood where he says he was cast in stereotypical roles for Muslims and South Asians. He says making the documentary helped him develop empathy for his parents.

“I realized I was more Bangladeshi than I thought,” he says. “I would always say to my mother, ‘I’m not from Bangladesh. I’m from New York. I listen to hip-hop. I’m a Knicks fan. I love the Yankees. I’m born and bred New York.’ And she would say, ‘No, you’re from my stomach, you’re from Noakhali.’”

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  • Sascha Raiyn
    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.